Uchenna Esomonu and Clifton Bullock Jr. | Special to The OBSERVER

Michael Benjamin II, a lifelong Oak Park resident, says he is working to preserve the history and culture of Oak Park even though the racial demographics are changing. (Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER).

It is common knowledge among Black people that the construction of a new Starbucks in any Black neighborhood spells doom for its residents. It is often the first clue, the telltale sign of gentrification setting in. 

The sight of that unmistakable double-tailed mermaid logo becomes a warning. The buzz of eager customers awaiting their daily dose of caffeine, a threat of impending and often guaranteed displacement. 

So when Michael Benjamin II saw a Starbucks was coming to Oak Park, the neighborhood where he was born and raised, he felt a sense of dread. He understood instantly what this meant for his community.

“That was the snowball that started the avalanche,” he said. 

Since then he has watched many residents, friends and neighbors, leave the neighborhood.

Indeed, the proportion of Oak Park residents who are Black dropped from 22% to 15% in the last decade, according to new Census 2020 figures. The loss is especially significant for a neighborhood that was once a hotspot for Black activism, notably housing the city’s first Black newspaper, The Sacramento OBSERVER, and also the region’s headquarters for the Black Panther Party.

This trend, however, is not unique to Oak Park. About six miles away, Meadowview, another neighborhood noted for its strong Black community, is also experiencing an exodus of its Black residents. 

Recent census data shows that the proportion of Meadowview residents who identify as Black fell from 23% in 2010 to 18% in 2020.

In both neighborhoods, the common denominator are rising home prices that increasingly exceed the budget of low-income residents who are often African American. As of September 2021, the median listing home price in Central Oak Park was $375,000, according to RedFin.com. Home prices in the area trended up 24% last year. 

The inflation is as a result of redevelopment projects launched a decade ago by former Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson aimed at revitalizing the neighborhood, but has had the adverse result of driving home prices up, according to Benjamin. The issue is further compounded by California’s unchecked home prices that has allowed droves of well-paid Bay Area tech workers to retreat to Sacramento, essentially outbidding natives on homes in their own communities. 

“You can understand why people would want to move there,” said Vice Mayor and District 5 Councilmember Jay Schenirer. “It’s driven up housing prices and yes, gentrification is a by-product of that unfortunately.” 

Real estate agent Keisha Matthews, shown here on a soon-to-be-developed property near Meadowview’s Delta Shores, says African Americans were disproportionately impacted following the 2008 housing crash, and have been unable to recover as quickly as other communities. (Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER).

In Meadowview, this displacement began after the 2008 housing market crash which cost many African American residents their homes. According to real estate expert Keisha Mathews, foreclosed homes that were relisted by banks in the aftermath of the crisis were only made available to buyers with intention to occupy their new homes.

“Now step back and look at well; who are those owners? Who are the people that actually get to buy these homes?” she said. “That’s why we’re seeing the racial makeup of buyers change. 

“Because Blacks had just lost their homes and some are still recovering from losing their homes in the [housing] fallout. We don’t have the financial capacity to buy these homes.” 

Additional factors like underinvestment have plagued Meadowview for years, along with limited options for employment and affordable housing, Mathews said. The neighborhood notoriously has no banks within its 5-square-mile radius, which poses challenges to local Black businesses looking to get loans. 

Many have left in search of greener pastures. 

Even when investments are made, it is often not with the interests of Black residents in mind. 

An overview of the redevelopment initiatives launched in Oak Park is proof. Although spearheaded by Johnson, an Oak Park native, a former NBA All-Star and the city’s first African American mayor, most of the programs did not favor Black residents, some community activists said.

“Kevin Johnson was the Black face they needed to push their redevelopment program through,” Eliza Deed, Oak Park resident and community advocate, said. “He came back not knowing Oak Park at all.”

Johnson’s initiatives made no provision to safeguard long-time Oak Park residents from the inevitable displacement that often follows redevelopment, she said. 

“We don’t object to development,” Benjamin added. “You can develop without displacing but you can’t gentrify without displacing. Gentrification requires displacement.”

To Benjamin, the loss of these long-time residents signifies the gradual erosion of Oak Park’s history and flavor. A facet of the community is replaced with each new resident who most often lacks appreciation for what came before them.

“They come in and what they do is they not only buy a house on the street but then the history is forgotten,” he said. “We forget that that’s Miss Mabel’s house and Miss Mabel took care of the kids on the block. We forget because it just becomes an address.”

Reversing the gentrification trend in the neighborhood poses a challenge to the city government who are struggling to balance redeveloping the area and preserving long-time residents. 

“I think there’s no silver bullets here,” said Schenirer, who represents Oak Park on the City Council. “I don’t think you can stop gentrification, I think you can mitigate some of the impact.”

One way the city has done this is by negotiating a 20% local hire mandate in the Aggie Square project, a $1.1 billion project that will expand the UC Davis campus in Sacramento. The mandate also includes a commitment to 25% local hire in 10 years. Oak Park and Meadowview, among other neighborhoods, are the focus of the project’s workforce development and qualified residents in these communities will be considered over the initial 10 years of the project. 

“Our responsibility is then to make sure that we have for the most part young people but also all folks in those pathways so that when those jobs become available we have people from the neighborhood to fill them,” Schenirer said.

On the community level, Deed, with help from Benjamin, launched the Speak Out Oak Park Campaign to raise awareness about displacement in the neighborhood. 

The campaign also includes a YouTube docuseries with interviews from more than 43 families that educates residents on their role in stopping this trend.

Benjamin, who was interviewed for the docuseries, described it as “a history book without pages” as it captures the lived experiences of residents that may eventually be forced out of the neighborhood. 

He is, however, determined that does not become his story. Oak Park is right where he needs to be.

“I would never move out of Oak Park,” he said. “I can’t leave my community. It’s my life’s blood. It’s all I know. I know the beauty so that’s why I’ll continue to fight.”